Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What Does My Korean Name Mean?

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Dear Korean,

My question concerns my Korean name. The story I have been told all my life is that I was found on a street corner by a policeman in Seoul and subsequently placed in an orphanage. I was given a name and a date of birth, one of which stuck with me (the birth date), while the other (the name) was abandoned faster than a politician’s promise when I was adopted by a military family from the United States. I was adopted during a time when the philosophy was to assimilate foreign children into their new culture as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. For most of my life, it never even occurred to me that my Korean name might mean anything other than “Jane Doe.”

Recently, I was told that my name means “fate” or “destiny,” but upon a Google search, I found other meanings. I am wondering if you would be willing to set the matter straight. The romanization I was given is: Park Sook-Myung.

Rebekah M.

Believe it or not, this is one of the most common types of question that the Korean would receive: Korean Americans, usually adoptees, asking about the meaning of their Korean name. Although the Korean previously dealt with this issue several times, it wouldn't hurt to go over this one more time and have a post that is more explicitly focused on the name meanings.

Here is the short answer to Rebekah: there is no way to know the meaning of your name unless we know the Chinese characters behind your name.

Let's first get a sense of Korean language generally. Remember this important point: (classical) Chinese is to Korean is Latin is to English. Just like many English words have a Latin origin, many Korean words have a Chinese origin. Those words are called Sino-Korean. As is the case with English, Korean words that are on the more sophisticated side tend to be Sino-Korean.

For example, the word "boxer" originates from Middle English; the word "pugilist," which means the same but is usually used in a higher-level discourse, originates from Latin. Similarly, for example, Koreans may use the pure Korean word 아기 ("baby") to refer to a young child, in an everyday conversation. But in legal documents, Koreans are more likely to use the Sino-Korean word 영아 ("infant"). Because 아기 is a pure Korean word, one cannot write this word using Chinese characters. But because 영아 is a Sino-Korean word, one can write this word using Chinese characters, like so:  嬰兒.

Importantly, most Korean names are Sino-Korean, which means they use Chinese characters. To be sure, some babies are given purely Korean names, such as 하늘 (Haneul, "sky") or 나래 (Narae, "wings"). But these names tend to be the minority: depending on the year, between 3 and 9 percent of the babies are given purely Korean names. In all other instances, Korean names are Sino-Korean words. This means that, for most Korean names, one cannot know their meaning unless one also knows the Chinese characters behind them. This becomes even truer because a single Korean syllable does not correspond one-on-one to a single Chinese character. Instead, it is very common for a dozen different Chinese characters to have the same sound in Korean.

For example, let's take the syllables "sook" (숙) and "myung" (명) from Rebehak's name. Here are just some of the Chinese characters that are pronounced as "sook" in Sino-Korean: 淑 (to be clear); 宿 (to sleep); 肅 (to be somber); 熟 (to be cooked); 叔 (uncle); 夙 (early); 琡 (jade); 菽 (bean). Similarly, here are the Chinese characters that are pronounced as "myung" in Sino-Korean: 明 (bright); 命 (life); 名 (name); 鳴 (to cry); 銘 (to engrave); 冥 (to be dark); 螟 (inchworm); 皿 (dish; vessel); 酩 (to be drunk).

(Note: the Chinese language does a much better job at distinguishing these characters because the Chinese language is tonal. Centuries ago, Korean language used to be tonal as well--which probably helped navigating the Sino-Korean words. But today, Korean language only has the tiniest vestiges of tones, most of which are unnoticed even by Koreans themselves.)

Because there are so many possibilities, it is nearly pointless to ask: "my Korean name is 'Sook-Myung.' What does 'Sook-Myung' mean?" Unless one actually knows the Chinese character behind "sook" and "myung", it is not possible to say what the name means exactly. It can mean anywhere between "clear and bright," "dark jade" and "drunk bean." Like Rebehak pointed out, "Sook-Myung" can mean "destiny," if one wrote the word with these Chinese characters: 宿命.

It is possible to make an educated guess. It is very unlikely for the name "Sook-Myung" to mean "destiny," if only because Koreans customarily do not use the characters 宿命 to name a child. There are certain sets of Chinese characters that Koreans commonly use for a name--which the Korean covered in this post. Based on the commonly used characters, one can somewhat narrow down the possibilities. If the Korean was forced to guess the Chinese characters behind "Sook-Myung," he would have guessed this: 淑明, i.e. "clean and bright" or "demure and wise." (These are the same characters used in Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul.)

But even this guess is inexact, because there are also multiple commonly used Chinese characters that share the same sound. For example, the common Chinese characters for the syllable "yoon" in a Korean name can be 潤 (rich), 允 (truth) or 胤 (first-born). So the bottom line remains the same: to know what a Korean name means, one has to know the Chinese characters used for that name.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

7 comments:

  1. Very interesting. When I was in Korea, I had a co-worker who'd majored in Chinese. She told me that the meaning of the character "숙" was "womanly," which is why you only see it in women's names. She also said it sounded old-fashioned today, which is probably why all the women I've met with "숙" in their names have been over 30.

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  2. Does the original writer know which Park clan they are from?

    If they do, they could look to the family register to find the dollimja (돌림자) for the current generations. Since the 돌림자 is a chinese character, this could give them the likely meaning of either the "sook" or the "myeong" syllable of their birth-name. Unfortunately, the other half is still just guesswork.

    Even if the original author doesn't know their clan, they won't do badly by guessing that they are of the "Mir-yang" (밀양) clan, since this clan comprises 80% of "Park"s (and 6% of the Korean population).

    Were babies put up for adoption still placed on the family register? One might be able to further limit by birthdate, or ID number.

    Reference:
    http://songga.com/kr/data03/3734

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    1. Although not unheard of and more common earlier in the 20th century (from my observations), Korean women's names typically do not have a Generation Name (돌림자). Korean generation names typically are based on the Five Elements (五行, 오행), which are 火 (Fire), 木 (Wood), 水 (Water), 金 (Metal), and 土 (Earth), and have it as a radical. For instance, 鎬(호), used as a generation name, is the combination of 金 and 高. Other generation names are based on numbers, Zodiacs (支地, 지지) and the Celestial stems (天干, 천간), but from my experience these aren't in Korean names.

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  5. Hello, brp...I am the author of the question. I don't know my clan. In fact, I don't even know who named me. I always assumed it was some anonymous government official.

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  6. If you could find the original adoption paper, it is possible that it will have your hanja name listed.

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